Welcome to Commish for a Day, a new series where The Players’ Tribune calls in a few favors and gives real athletes ULTIMATE POWER over their league. Budgets, politics and feelings are ignored. First up is Kansas City Royals pitcher Jeremy Guthrie.
It’s mid-July. Summer is in full swing. You turn on the TV on a lazy Saturday and it’s a panorama of Fenway Park in the mid-afternoon sun. The camera cuts to scenes all around the ballpark, and there’s a festival going on. Little League teams are playing in the parks all around Boston. Aerial views reveal the stream of animated fans from Newbury to Yawkey Way. Some of them have their faces painted red, white and blue. Some have Puerto Rican flags draped over their shoulders. Some of them are singing the Dominican anthem. Giant screens are set up for viewing parties all over the city. Beantown is engulfed with baseball fever.
Then the logo flashes on the screen: The World Cup of Baseball 2016. USA vs. the Dominican Republic. The camera cuts to the announcers in the booth.
“Jim, let’s cut straight to the chase. It’s what everyone’s talking about. The debate over who will start in center field today for Team USA, and it’s a doozy. Andrew McCutchen or Mike Trout?”
Pretty awesome, right? We’re making it happen. Because as commissioner, I am upgrading the World Baseball Classic to the World Cup of Baseball.
Here’s how I would do it.
Step 1: Use the World Cup as the model
The World Baseball Classic is great, but who wouldn’t want to see it go to the next level and approach the hype of soccer’s World Cup? Right now, the WBC takes place in March during spring training, so the best players in the world have a bunch of easy (and good) excuses for why they can’t participate. As commissioner of MLB, I want to grow the game globally by showcasing the sport and giving players from around the world the chance to compete against the best talent. The only way to do that is to give the world a reason to stop what they’re doing for a week-and-a-half and watch the absolute best of the best compete at the highest level.
So we’re moving the tournament to July when everyone is in peak form. Once every four years, we’ll substitute the traditional All-Star week for the World Cup of Baseball. Just like the NHL does for the Olympics, we’re putting the season on a very slight hold. I can hear the complaints already, “But that’s too long of a break! What am I going to do?” Here’s an idea: Take batting practice. Play catch with your kid. Take a SUMMER vacation. Do whatever you want. You’ve been playing baseball every day for five months straight. You could use a break.
My proposal requires only nine days. Like the soccer World Cup, we’ll select one host country for every tournament. To make things more competitive, we’ll narrow down the WBC field from 16 teams to eight through pre-qualifying rounds during spring training (if Australia or Italy doesn’t make it, it’s just more incentive for them to qualify for the next World Cup). When the action picks up in July, we’ll play traditional round-robin groups to get us to a Final Four. The semis will be single elimination, but the Finals will be a best-of-three series. This will give the Finals more of a traditional baseball feel with a series, versus a single game to decide a World Champion.
For the purists out there, we can still keep the All-Star Game and the Home Run Derby. We’ll just use those great events to kick off the World Cup of Baseball festivities and build the hype. It’ll be great to have guys mic’d up during this time to hear the friendly trash-talk starting between the different countries.
All in all, that breaks down to seven days of World Cup games, plus one day for Home Run Derby/rest and one day for the All-Star Game. Currently, the All-Star break is four days, so we’re only adding five extra days onto the traditional MLB season.
But how do we make sure the best players play, you ask? I’ll tell you …
Step 2: Make the roster selection an event
I’m always reading about how baseball can attract younger fans. I can think of no better way to re-energize the fanbase than turning the World Cup of Baseball team selections into an interactive debate. Similar to the Midsummer Classic, I’m letting the managers of each respective country select a core group of starters, and then turning the rest of the roster over to fan voting.
You can have two center fielders for Team USA. Who do you vote for? Do you vote for the perennial All-Star, or maybe for your favorite player who is having a career year? Think of the debate that would be raging on ESPN and talk radio stations and all over the internet in deciding who the best player is at that exact moment. Forget pace-of-play rules, this is the kind of excitement we need in baseball in order to stay relevant to a young fanbase. I would hope that no player would turn down a chance to play if you turn it into a major event like this.
Step 3: It’s OK to have some fun
International baseball is hard to market. With the soccer World Cup, you can show the commercials with fans jumping around and singing and lighting off flares. Patriotism is easy to invoke with all the energy surrounding the sport and event. Baseball is a different animal. That’s one of my biggest challenges as commissioner.
Baseball has the tradition of being played with a more calm and cool demeanor, especially in the United States. American baseball players, for the most part, are taught to remove emotion from the moment. A small fist pump or brisk jog off the field following a big play is tolerated, while extreme displays of emotion will often incite the opposition. In the Latin American baseball culture, there’s a lot more passion. When they hit home runs, it is not uncommon to see players toss their bats and be greeted by their teammates at home plate. In the USA, when you hit a home run, you’re taught to be even-keeled. You put your head down and act like you’ve done it before. You can’t be too fast. You can’t be too slow. Anything outside the norm is frowned upon.
Maybe this “business-as-usual” approach is better-suited for the grind of a 162-game season, but it doesn’t make for a great atmosphere during international play.
I’m not proposing we change the well-established culture of Major League Baseball, but maybe a little more emotion and excitement would contribute to a better tournament and make it more exciting. Even the Japanese fans know that when their guy hits a home run, they’re going to be blowing air horns, dancing and waving banners and flags, something I learned through personal experience this past November in the Japan All-Star Series.
I’ve always watched with some amount of envy the ways other countries play baseball and celebrate every moment of this great game. There is something to be said for being a part of a team where guys are more interested in getting their teammates pumped up and excited with high fives and fist-bumps than worrying about how the other team may perceive their kid-like exuberance. I’ve been in both types of dugouts, and I know I get a lot more excited and into the game when there’s a ton of energy, versus a bunch of guys chewing gum and spitting sunflower seeds.
We should use the World Cup of Baseball to celebrate the diversity of baseball cultures — if only for nine days every four years. I’m sorry, purists. I’ve played winter ball in the Dominican. The excitement of each game was kind of awesome.
Step 4: The patriotism will take care of itself
I was fortunate to be selected to play in the World Baseball Classic in 2009. Before the tournament started, all the players convened in Florida and representatives from USA Baseball sat us all down in a room for a welcome meeting. They gave this very serious pep talk about what it means to put on the USA jersey and represent our country. They actually had us all stand and showed us the proper way to put our hats over our hearts during the national anthem. I’m looking around the room and I see guys like Derek Jeter, Jimmy Rollins and Chipper Jones. Players who have played this game for the better part of two decades and been on the game’s biggest stage. To conclude, the speaker attempted to get us all fired up and gave us the charge to “Go out there and represent the United States of America and kick some butt!”
When the reps left the room, we looked at each other and raised our eyebrows.
I think that was my first ever pep talk before any baseball game or tournament. Maybe it’s tradition or the nature of the 162-game season, but a baseball game is not typically preceded by a motivational speech. It’s not like football where you can get pumped up and then go out and release that energy by hitting somebody. It is tougher to manufacture and create that energy to compete with those feelings of patriotism in baseball.
It doesn’t happen that way. You know how it happens? Through fierce competition. I’ll never forget how our 2009 team went from a random group of assembled major league players to a team representing our country. We were down a run to Puerto Rico in the bottom of the ninth of an elimination game with a trip to the semifinals at stake. As the game progressed, you sensed the mood shift in the dugout. Guys looked each other as if to say, This cannot happen. We cannot lose to Puerto Rico. It became a matter of pride. For those last few innings, we were living and dying with every pitch.
With the bases loaded and one out, David Wright shot a line drive into the right-field corner. Every player rushed from the top step of the dugout onto the field as soon as we saw the ball hit the ground, seemingly willing Jimmy Rollins around third base for the winning run. It was a mob scene in the infield as the comeback was completed and we advanced to the Semifinal round.
To this day, it is one of the most exciting moments I’ve had as a baseball player (right up there with winning the ALCS and advancing to the World Series). The joy and excitement of the win was genuine and raw. In just a few short games, we had molded into a team proud to represent the name on our chests.
Look at the joy in Derek Jeter’s face in this video.
In the end, we lost in the semifinals to Japan. Team USA has still never won a World Baseball Classic. We have never even made the finals. I think about how we felt as a team in 2009 as we staved off elimination and can’t help but think what an amazing opportunity it was to play alongside All-Stars and future Hall of Famers in a quest to prove our dominance in a sport created here in the USA.
We should eliminate as many obstacles as possible in helping to assemble the most talented teams and put this beautiful game on center stage for all to enjoy. In the end, the only way to create the ultimate baseball event that will capture the world’s attention is to have every country’s elite players in midseason form.
Fenway Park at 4 p.m. World Cup Final. Venezuela vs. USA. Anthems playing. “USA” chants ringing out. King Felix vs. Clayton Kershaw. Or is it Max Scherzer? Or Madison Bumgarner? Or ….
Come on. You love it.
Have some thoughts on how to make The World Baseball Classic the best it can be? Let’s start a conversation. Tweet me @TheRealJGuts